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Roadblocks to data literacy

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Data adoption and data literacy are two intrinsically linked concepts. From my discussions with clients, when we talk about data literacy we are often talking about the confidence to use the BI tools within my organisation, and to make decisions based on the presented data. Despite massive investments in BI and data across organisations from large to small, adoption has been stagnant for many years.

I have been a passionate data literacy advocate for a long time. I’ve written a lot (too much) about the need for data literacy in business, at all levels. I’ve worked in training and change programs to try to address and improve data literacy. Despite best efforts, so much of what is taught struggles to stick for business users.

A little while back I had a bit of a light bulb moment. I was talking to a client about the issues they were having in their business. She talked about the current level of BI maturity and how long it was going to take to move the wider organisation to a point where data driven decision making was even on the radar.

Now writing about this, it just seems really obvious and I am a little embarrassed to share, but I’m going to put it out there anyway. I think that I have been going about BI adoption all wrong. For all my UX colleagues out there, please try to avoid the face palm moment as I explain my thinking.

Let’s first think about the purpose of BI.

It’s about getting insights into the hands of the people with the expertise to make a decision. So who are these people with the expertise? In general they are our “business users”. They are Sales Managers, Operations Managers, Customer Service and Marketing Teams. These are the people who make the business happen. They understand their area and how the pieces come together to deliver an outcome. What they often struggle with, is getting the data or insights to answer their questions.

Now imagine that you are one of these users and I say “hey, we have a BI tool that can help you”. Now I sit you in a class and I give you this, tell me what do you feel when you see it?

I think the word “overwhelmed” is probably a common feeling for business users, in fact I know it is, I’ve seen it.

Now I’d like you to think about a digital platform that has had widespread adoption. I think it is hard to go past the success of Google. When you open Google, how do you feel?

Even my mum knows what you need to do.

With Google, it is so clean and simple that it removes the barriers for adoption. They have managed to take something pretty complex and remove that complexity, to enable pretty much anyone to be able to achieve their task without stress.

So this was my lightbulb moment about data literacy and adoption. We have been trying to teach our business users to become comfortable using our existing BI tools. The tools that were built and designed for analysts. To be very clear, the tools are 100% capable of delivering the data and insights that the business users are searching for, but they don’t have the confidence or skill to use them. They struggle to get started because they are overwhelmed.

They need an interface that is clean and simple and guides them towards the data and insights. They need a tool that is built for a business user.

The most common solution is to have the analyst team build-out dashboards for the business users. The issue with this approach is that while some questions like monthly reporting are repeatable and a dashboard works well, there are an infinite number of ad-hoc/once-off questions that also need to be answered. This is where self-service BI is critical. It is unscalable and inefficient to have those BI needs served through a centralised team.

ThoughtSpot - BI for Business Users

It’s become clear to me that in order to drive data literacy and adoption the approach which will work better is where we have a BI tool that has been purpose built for the business user. It must be simple and easy to use, removing the clutter and letting them ask their question and get an answer back in a way that makes sense. It needs to do this without day long training sessions that are difficult to implement for business users outside of the classroom.

If you would like to know more about making data and BI more accessible to your business users, drop me a line at

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